Vicki Baker had an unusual plea for police officers in McKinney, Texas, when she learned an armed fugitive had holed up in her home: Do not destroy the property.
It didn’t work. During an hourslong standoff with the man and a 15-year-old girl inside, SWAT officers shot approximately 30 tear gas canisters into Baker’s property, blew up her garage door, and drove an armored vehicle over her fence.
The teenager got out of the house, but by the time cops stormed the property, the fugitive had killed himself in Baker’s bedroom. Baker’s belongings, some of them irreplaceable, were ruined by tear gas. Even her daughter’s dog, which came running out of the home during the standoff, ended up nearly blind and completely deaf.
So, while Baker had nothing to do with the events behind the police confrontation—she wasn’t even in the state that day—she still suffered the punishment.
“There was two days that I couldn’t get off the couch, that I cried,” she said.
She’d recently signed a contract to sell the property, too. The 76-year-old needed the money to fund her retirement, but thanks to the extensive damage, the sale of the home quickly fell through.
The city of McKinney refused to help her out financially, and Baker’s insurance provider told her it also wouldn’t cover any destruction caused by the government. Ultimately, Baker was stuck with approximately $50,000 in damages.
Distraught, Baker later discovered that she wasn’t alone. Other innocent people had seen their property torn up by the police, too—and gotten squat in compensation. Now, Baker, in an effort to reverse that trend, is suing the city of McKinney for damages, with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.
“What I want is justice for everybody that this happens to,” she said.
In 2015, for example, Colorado cops blew up a man’s home while trying to get to an armed shoplifting suspect. More than four years later, a federal appeals court decided the property owner wasn't entitled to compensation to cover the wreckage, since police were preserving public safety, according to NPR. The homeowner had no connection to the shoplifting suspect. The Institute for Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to review that case, which the high court declined to do in June of last year.
The government is supposed to pay up for the damage it’s caused, even if that destruction is the result of something good—like trying to arrest a fugitive, according to Baker’s lawsuit with the Institute for Justice. Under the takings clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, private property can’t be taken for public use without “just compensation.” Texas’ constitution similarly calls for “adequate compensation” if a person’s private property is taken, damaged, or destroyed during public use, the lawsuit notes.
Still, a growing number of lower courts have invented an exception to the takings clause: destruction caused by police, according to Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney at the Institute for Justice who is working on Baker’s case. That interpretation is incorrect, he said. Intentional damage caused by the government is supposed to be compensable.
“It’s not about wrongdoing on the police's part. It’s certainly not about holding any individual police officers liable. It’s just about what burdens should be borne by the public, and what burdens should be borne by random unlucky individuals,” Redfern said.
And if the government won’t be on the hook for any cost from the damage, cops have little reason to stop and think before they bash up someone’s home, said Daniel Woislaw, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm that’s not involved in Baker’s case.
“The incentive structure that’s created when the government is not accountable for destroying or taking private property is they’re going to do that more, they’re going to be more destructive, they’re going to use more military equipment,” Woislaw said.
The McKinney Police Department did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment on Baker’s lawsuit. In a statement, the McKinney city attorney said, “The city does not comment on litigation matters, and it will vigorously defend the actions of our officers.”
But some cities have concluded on their own that police damage should be covered—at least in special circumstances. After police tore apart a Baltimore home during a standoff with the owner’s neighbor last August, for instance, a local city council person told WBFF, a Fox affiliate, that the government would foot the bill for repairs.
Baker didn’t get any such offer.
On the day of the standoff, July 25, her daughter Deanna, who was preparing the home for sale while Baker was living out-of-state, saw a Facebook post from a woman who said a man named Wesley Little “had run off with her fifteen-year-old daughter,” according to the lawsuit. Deanna recognized him—she had worked with him before, and the family had hired Little to do odd jobs at the home in 2018, before letting him go because he had made Baker’s children uncomfortable.
Then, later that day, Little showed up at the home with the girl and told Deanna he needed a place to stay and park his car, according to the lawsuit. Deanna got away, called her mother, and they called McKinney police together. Deanna gave cops a code to enter the home and the garage door opener.
What happened next was largely captured by neighbors and social media posts, according to Baker.
The girl left the house unharmed, but told police that Little wasn’t planning to get out alive and was heavily armed, according to the lawsuit. From Lakeside, Montana, Baker saw a video that showed tear gas canisters flying into the window of her Texas home.
But she didn’t know the full extent of the damage until her daughter went to the home the following day, after the raid had ended and Little had died by suicide.
“She videoed the room, and you can hear her gasping as she’s going through there,” Baker said. It was apparent that the sale of the home wasn’t going to go through.
Baker emphasized that she’s not against the police. But in the wake of the incident that left her home totally destroyed, she still thinks cops went a bit overboard during the standoff. They blew up the garage door, for example, when they had been provided with an operator to open it.
Her insurance provider would only cover the cost of cleaning up blood from the suicide. The city said it wasn’t liable for the damage. So Baker ran up her credit card and borrowed from her retirement savings to cover the costs of getting the property in order. People and local businesses also donated cash and building materials to help get her house back in order.
“It was just, ‘Sorry, you lose,’” Baker said.
She was finally able to sell the home in December. Luckily, it was taken off the market very quickly, although some potential buyers were spooked by what had happened with the home, Baker said. But she let it go for $10,000 below the asking price.
“I knew there had to be a purpose behind it all,” Baker said. “I have complete faith in God’s judgment and God’s timing. There’s a reason for this lawsuit, and I don’t think it’s for me. I think it’s for others.”